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The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet

by Kim Adrian

excerpts from a memoir



Adamant

“I just remember the Dairy Queen,” says Tracy. She and I try to  talk every weekend, long distance: Boston to Chicago. Through the  lace shawl I’ve draped over our bedroom window, the sun scatters  irregular polka dots across the bed I share with my husband. 

“What do you mean the Dairy Queen?” 

“Before we went to the bakery on Sunday mornings, Dad and I  used to stop to get ice cream. That’s why it took so long.” 

“It did take a long time.” 

“Oreo Blizzards. I just remember those. I don’t know how you  keep all that other crap in your head. All those memories.” 

“I don’t know how you don’t.” 

It’s something we often discuss, my sister and I—the different  ways we remember our childhoods. “There are worse,” says Tracy,  and she would know, having taught social studies in a Chicago inner-city  high school for nearly two decades, to students who have crack  addicts for mothers and convicts for fathers, kids who get pregnant  or shot dead before they’re halfway through freshman year. But I, for  whatever reason, have always been clear about this: that time, those  years—our childhoods—sucked. On this, I am adamant. 

Of course, we had very different childhoods, as siblings invariably  do. For example, Tracy was my father’s favorite. I was my mother’s.  Tracy was barely a year old at the time of our mother’s first suicide  attempt, while I was three and saw the blood, the razor blade, and  the paramedics firsthand. Tracy wasn’t quite two when our mother left us, and when she returned, Tracy was four, while I was already  six. Beyond that, our natural temperaments are in many ways almost  opposite. Those temperaments were often parsed by our mother,  who liked to say that Tracy was athletic and I was artistic, Tracy  good at math, I at English, Tracy practical and happy-go-lucky, I  dreamy and oversensitive. Tracy, she often said, was easygoing but I  was incredibly stubborn. If Tracy wanted a lollipop, she’d joke, you  could promise to get it for her the next day and never hear about it  again. But I have always had (as my mother still occasionally puts it)  “the memory of an elephant.” 


Amygdala 

Rooted etymologically in Greek words meaning “almond tonsils,”  referring to their tapered and somewhat pendulant shape, the  amygdala are a paired set of ganglia located at the base of the brain.  Considered part of the limbic system, they control, in concert with  the hypothalamus, the processing of both memory and emotion and  for this reason are considered the seat of our fight-flight-or-freeze  impulses. In people with post-traumatic stress disorder, the amygdala,  along with the hypothalamus, tend to be enlarged. According to my  mother, who has a remarkable but perhaps distorted knowledge of  brain anatomy (and whose amygdala are “big as grapefruits”), people  with PTSD often experience even the smallest decisions and most  innocuous encounters as fight-flight-or-freeze situations, as a result  of which their amygdala, like their hypocanthae, are engaged in  nearly constant activity. Hence, the enlargement.


Bastard 

I get a call from one of my mother’s sisters—my Aunt Becky. Even  though she was my closest aunt when I was growing up, I haven’t  spoken to her in years because I avoid my mother’s family as much  as possible, so, needless to say, things are awkward at first. The point of  her call, my aunt informs me, is to see if I might be able to convince  my mother to sign something—an insurance claim on the land my  grandmother’s house stood on before it burned down a couple of  years ago. There’s some money available, she explains, a few thousand  dollars per sibling, but it can only be dispersed if all six siblings sign the  claim, and she’s having trouble getting my mother on board. 

“I thought you might have better luck.” 

“I doubt it. But I’ll try.” 

After that, we try to catch up, but things are stilted. She asks about  my kids and I ask about my cousins and their kids, her grandchildren.  She tells me she’s playing a lot of bridge these days and that she’s  happy. I say I, too, am happy. A nd then for some reason—I’m not  sure how we get there—we’re talking about mental illness. 

“Nobody on either side of the family was ever mentally ill before  your mother,” my aunt says in a way that strikes me as oddly preemptive.  I ask if she’s sure, and she says, “Of course I’m sure.” 

“But your fa-fa-fa-father.” The word comes out of my mouth  like that, as if spoken by a stuttering comic-book character. “How do  you explain the things he di-di-did to you guys?” 

“Oh, he wasn’t crazy!” says Aunt Becky, practically spitting the  words into the phone. “He was just a bastard. I mean he was just a  really mean bastard. A goddamn bastard. And alcoholic, of course.  And, excuse me for saying so, but basically addicted to sex. But he  wasn’t crazy.” Okay, I think, so we have different definitions of crazy.  Then I ask whether or not she believes my mother had seemed at  all off-kilter as a kid. 

“Oh, God, no! I mean, we were always saying things like, ‘What  are you, crazy, Linda?’ But we didn’t mean crazy. Still, she was always  doing these crazy things. I think it had something to do with . . . I don’t  know if you know this, but for some reason, our father just hated your  mother. I guess because she hated him. The rest of us, if he came home  drunk, we’d all pretend to be asleep, but not your mother. She’d just get  right up in his face and start yelling at him. I don’t know why, it always  ended the same way. He used to throw her across the room. I mean  throw. Just pick her up and spin her around over his head and then  throw her down, hard. Sometimes he threw her down the stairs. And  I think. I think all those impacts. I’m not sure but I’ve always thought.  They must have done something. I mean to her brain.” 


Big-Time Fraud 

It’s complicated. I don’t understand the intricacies. But basically,  Medicaid has something to do with the bank, which is stealing millions of dollars in her name. Big-time fraud is how she puts it. Also,  the FBI is involved. So she doesn’t want Medicaid anymore. She  wants Medicare because Medicaid won’t let her see doctors out of  state, but Medicare will, which is obviously a necessity if she’s ever  going to find proper treatment. Which is why she’s unenrolled herself  from Medicaid. When I tell her this worries me, when I say that I  don’t think she should be walking around uninsured, my mother says  it’s called strategy and asks if I’ve ever heard of it. 


Comme des Garçons 

Isaac has a friend over after school. The two of them are making  dinosaurs out of legos. His friend’s mother and sister have come over  as well, and the three of us—the mother, the sister, and I—are sitting  on the living room floor where I am trying to teach the girl how to  knit because her Gameboy has run out of batteries and she’s bored.  We’ve gotten through the process of casting on and she is on her  second row when my mother suddenly appears on the porch and  knocks gently at our door. I excuse myself and step outside, careful  to close the door behind me. 

“Did he give you my message?” she asks. 

“What message?” 

“I thought so!” 

She is wearing an enormous white nylon jacket. It is square-shaped,  and it hangs down to her knees. I’m not sure if that’s the way  it was supposed to fit, but the effect is kind of preppy and vaguely Comme des Garçons at the same time. Underneath the jacket, she  has on a pair of white jeans that I gave her a while back and some white platform sneakers. 

“Mom, I have company. Isaac has a friend over. I can’t talk.” 

“You never want to talk, but we have to talk. I don’t expect you  to believe this, Kimberli, but I am very, very ill. Things are happening  quickly. We need to discuss certain technicalities. You have to come  over and spend a few hours with me so that we can discuss certain  extremely important, factual items.” 

“Like what?” 

“Like life insurance.” She purses her lips then, to make sure I  understand that these words are code for I’m going to die soon

“Mom, I don’t have time for this.” 

“You don’t have time for your own mother?” 

“I don’t have time for your endless problems, your imagined illnesses,  your supposedly impending death, your paranoia.” 

She takes a step backwards, as if she’d been stunned by an actual  electrical shock, puts her hand on her chest, and says, “What are you  saying? You think I’m paranoid? Me? Kimberli, this is not child’s play.  When are you finally going to get it? When it’s too late?” 

I’m feeling pretty uncomfortable because I know that Isaac’s  friend’s mother and sister are in a perfect position to see me since  our front door has a large glass panel in the middle of it, and beyond  me, they can also no doubt make out my old, frail, crazy mother in  her huge, white, nylon jacket. And even though the door is shut, it’s  also likely they can hear us because our voices are raised. Things are  heated. 

“How long is this going to last?” she asks. “All this anger, all these  ‘boundaries’?” Then she begins to cry. “Oh, Kimmy,” she says, “if you  only knew how much I miss you loving me.” 

I pause to consider the unusual construction of this sentence.  Then the phone starts ringing. I tell her I have to go, but when I  turn to open the door, my mother grabs my arm. I pull away. “That’s  probably Isabella. I have to go.” 

“Don’t you dare!” 

“I have to. It’s Isabella!” 

“Don’t!” my mother shouts. But I go inside anyway, shutting  the door behind me, leaving her standing alone on the porch as  I am now in the habit of doing. She stands there with her long,  skinny arms at her sides in her big baggy jacket. As I run for the  phone, I flash what I’m pretty sure is a shit-eating grin at my  son’s friend’s mother, then grab the receiver. Just as I predicted,  it’s my daughter. She tells me her play rehearsal is over and that she’s coming straight home because she has a science project due tomorrow. I somehow hear her say these things even as my mother pushes the door open, not all the way, but wide enough to shout inside, “Your shrink is destroying your mind, you know. She’s  destroying your mind!” 


Department of Mental Health 

The central villain in my mother’s increasingly involved, debilitating,  and weirdly self-fulfilling delusions is the Massachusetts  Department of Mental Health, or DMH for short. DMH wants her  out of the way because she knows too much. She knows, for instance,  that certain doctors are criminally incompetent. Also that criminal abuses  have taken place. Somehow this knowledge is worth millions of dollars,  which is why DMH goes to such extraordinary, indeed almost  unimaginable pains to narrow her world. Their ultimate goal, she  tells me over and over, is to land her permanently in a locked ward  in a long-term psychiatric institution, at which point they will, she  is sure, force-administer enormous doses of psychopharmaceutical  drugs so as to render her beyond any capacity for logic, speech, selfdefense, or legal action. 


Doppelgängers 

Whenever I see my mother by chance in cafés and gift shops, at  the grocery store, or just walking along the street, I think, “She looks  better than I thought! She looks fine!” I think, “She’s still beautiful!”  I slow my pace to study her in detail, though at the same time I am  careful to not let her see me. She is always tall and thin with gray,  shoulder-length hair, high cheekbones, and long limbs. All of which  makes sense. But there are other details that don’t quite fit, which is  why I study her so carefully. For instance, my mother, when I see her  by chance, here or there, around town, is always very well dressed,  wearing, perhaps, a stylish raincoat or pleated slacks and expensive  loafers. Her hair is professionally cut, not riddled with bald spots.  Also, she doesn’t hide her teeth behind her hand when she speaks,  and when she does speak, she doesn’t do so nervously or for much  too long. I notice all these details, and while I recognize that they  don’t quite make sense, the illusion remains. 

Sometimes, if he’s with me, I’ll grab my husband’s arm and say,  “Is that my mother?”

“Are you joking?” he asked once. 

Another time, not long ago, I was walking with my children  in the little commercial center of our town when I spotted my mother in a gourmet ice cream shop. She was sitting with her back to the window, reading a Nadine Gordimer novel, slowly picking  at a cup of chocolate ice cream. I stopped to study the slope of this  woman’s shoulders, the nape of her neck, and the beautiful paisley shawl draped around what appeared to be a fine, hand-knit sweater.  Isabella asked me what was wrong, and I said, “I think that might be  Mormor.” She said, “That is not Mormor.” I asked if she was sure  and she said, “Do you really think, if that were Mormor, she’d just  be sitting there all calm, reading a book and eating an ice-cream?” I  said no, probably she wouldn’t be doing those things. But I was still  reluctant to leave and remained planted in front of the window until  Isabella said, “Mama, it’s not her,” and pulled me along. 


Do/Don’t 

Do not lose yourself in the past. 
Do not lose yourself in the future. 
Do not get caught in your anger, worries, or fears. 
Come back to the present moment, and touch life deeply. 
       —Thich Nhat Hanh 

Don’t regret what’s happened. If it’s in the past, let it go. 
Don’t even remember it! 
       —Rumi 


Earnest 

The day she chased him out of the house with a meat cleaver,  Tracy and I were screaming from the sidelines, begging them to stop.  Even now, I can see the cords sticking out from my sister’s neck as  she leaned over the banister, shouting, every bit of her straining, and  for some reason I found this hysterical—the cords in my sister’s neck  seemed so ridiculous and sweet and earnest and, most of all, pointless.  We were standing at the top of the stairwell, looking down at the  maniacs below us. My mother was thirty, maybe thirty-one years old.  At that time she had her hair done in a poodle perm. Rangy and thin,  she might have been wearing, as she often did in those days, some  boldly striped item—an oversized rugby shirt, perhaps. A pair of large,  peach-colored, plastic-framed eyeglasses would have sat perched on  her narrow, perfectly proportioned nose. But these are details dredged  from the dim swamp of impressions created over long years. Much  more in focus are my sister’s neck and the vaguely musky smell of the  stairwell itself, down which our father’s fat limbs went spiraling as he  shouted, “You’re crazy! Are you crazy? You’re crazy!” And my mother, with her skinny arms, her pointy elbows, her kinky hair, went spiraling  after him—cleaver raised overhead—all hell-bent and lost. 


Else 

When I ask how she knows she has worms in her left eye, my  mother says, “I know because I have actually pulled a worm out of  my eye. It was super long and super skinny and it just kept coming.”  When I try, delicately, to suggest that maybe what she pulled from  her eye wasn’t a worm but something else, I purposely leave the  “something else” unspecified because my mother would be insulted  by the word imaginary, and the word capillary (which is the only  other possibility to occur to me) seems too gruesome to verbalize. 

“Why, Kimberli?” she sighs. “Why are you so invested in this idea  I’m just this crazy, crazy lady? I’m telling you, this thing was alive and it was moving and it came out with hardly any tugging at all!” 


Etymology 

The “booger board” hung over the washing machine in the basement  of the stucco house we lived in when I was in middle school.  One of more disturbing documents of my mother’s arrested development,  this was a canvas-covered tack board, perhaps twenty-four by  twenty-four inches square, covered by a thick layer of glossy white  paint and, as the name indicates, mucus excretions of the nasal variety.  I mean, how else can I put it? Tracy and I avoided even remote visual  contact with this object whenever possible, were especially careful to  take friends, when heading into the yard, the long way around (i.e.,  through the front door, not the back, which was off the laundry room)  and, to this day, share a somewhat wild and uneasy laughter whenever  one of us invokes this old “inside joke.” Even now, I confess, just thinking  of the booger board gives me the willies. 

I say it counts as evidence of my mother’s arrested development,  and while this is certainly true (in many ways, it seems to me she is  emotionally no older than a child of six or seven), there were other  factors—significant factors—chief among them her need to be constantly  purging herself of one thing or another. Over the years, this  purging obsession has involved digging into her ears with bobby  pins, attempting to pull out her own teeth, aggressively expressing  all the glands in her body, and, most recently, removing what she  believes to be worms from her left eye. These activities (the list goes  on—the list is long) always bring to mind—to my mind anyway—  the roots of the word incest, which, in Latin, essentially means impure  or unclean. Etymologies so often illuminate latent realities, hidden  contexts. I think it’s safe to assume that whatever my grandfather did  to my mother when she was a child made her feel so contaminated  inside that to this day she remains determined to work the filth out  of her system by whatever means necessary. 


Fantasy 

My mother’s teeth are small and broken and yellow. Several are  missing. When she talks, she often hides her mouth behind her hand.  But this was not always the case. There was a time when her teeth  were large, white, straight. Yet even then there were problems—alignment  issues, muscle tension, mysterious needles of pain. These things  required prescription drugs and long periods spent in silence and darkness.  When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about fixing her teeth. In fact,  I can remember perfectly the first time the idea of fixing my mother’s  teeth occurred to me. I was sitting on the lid of a large wooden toy  chest in the bedroom I shared with Tracy, looking out onto the street,  the bleak suburban landscape—white sky, black tree branches, empty  sidewalks—when I found myself buoyed up by an incredible vision:  one day, when I grew up, I would become very rich—so rich I’d be  able to rescue my mother’s mouth, alleviate her pain, fix her “bite.” 


Faye Dunaway 

I used to keep a photograph of my mother in our living room.  People often commented on it. Once, a friend asked why I had a  framed photo of Sophia Loren on the shelf. I said, “That’s not Sophia  Loren.” 

“Catherine Deneuve?” 

“What are you talking about? Catherine Deneuve looks nothing  like Sophia Loren!”

“Well, whoever. Faye Dunaway?” 

It’s a self-portrait, but you can’t really tell that by looking at it. I  only know because my mother has always taken pictures of herself,  and I recognize the pale blue wall-to-wall carpeting under her head.  She took the picture in a living room we never got around to filling  with furniture, an empty space she sometimes used to “stretch  out” in, lying flat on the floor, often for hours. You can just barely catch a glimpse of her mask—studied, defensive—moving into place  over her features. But it hasn’t quite arrived. Instead, she wears an  expression I’ve never seen her wear in real life. You could almost call  it gentle. 


Feet 

“Do you girls have your feet in those holes?” 

“No!” 

“I told you not to put your feet in those holes.” 

“They’re not in the holes!” 

“They’ll get ripped right off! You’ll have stubs for feet!” 

“They’re not in!” 

I have always been a bad liar. Unconvincing. Red-faced, mumbling,  eye-averting. Even now, as a middle-aged woman, if I sense that someone suspects me of lying, if I sense they half-suspect me  of lying, quarter-suspect me, I do these things, like a child. Yet I lied  easily, without the least hesitation, to my grandmother about the  holes in the floor of the back seat of her car because lying to her was  a cinch. There was such an airy quality to the woman. Although she  spoke with great drama, it always seemed like she was never really  there. Lying to my mother was an entirely different story because she  often caught me at it even when I was telling the truth. The thing  is, as soon as she caught me, I got confused. It all seemed so fungible around her: reality, fantasy, truth, untruth. Words spoken anywhere in  her vicinity were dangerous; there was no telling what they might  mean. But to speak to her mother was easy. Even lying was nothing:  it simply meant risking my feet, and many times Tracy and I  spent the entire ride to Dunkin’ Donuts—ten miles, maybe, each  way—perched over the rusted-out holes in the floor of her decrepit  Malibu, our feet flexed inches above the grey speckled blur of the  highway. And which was more exhilarating—the act of lying or the  sense that I was flying—I couldn’t say. 


Girls 

We watched TV six, seven hours a day, sometimes more. It  wasn’t uncommon, for example, for us to come home from school,  grab food, bring it into the TV room, and watch a string of old  reruns—Get Smart, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Hogan’s HeroesM.A.S.H.—followed by the Blockbuster Movie. We’d break for  dinner, do a bit of homework, then return to our customary spots  (me on the couch, Tracy sprawled on the shag rug) to watch sitcoms  and family dramas. If it wasn’t a school night, we’d stay up  late watching movies, then the Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, and Second City TV. Often we fell asleep in front of the set, waking only at the piercing sound of the broadcast signal, though Tracy sometimes slept even through that. 

Not long ago, wandering randomly around YouTube, I found a  video of two sisters watching television together and they reminded  me of us, then. Tracy and me. The girl who made the video, the one  who’d set the recorder on top of the television, was curling her hair  and making occasional editorial comments about the show that was  on, some kind of cartoon. But the other one—the younger one—  just watched the screen. The girl curling her hair was probably about thirteen years old, her sister eleven or twelve. The younger one sat in  the corner of the couch with her arms crossed in front of her chest  and every once in a while softly told her sister to shut up. They sat in  a room that looked strikingly like the one Tracy and I spent so much  of our childhoods in: beige, square, dim. The video was six and a half  minutes long. I watched it five times. 


Gleimug Czysvlos 

My mother often signs off her friendlier text messages as “LuLu  LaBloom.” There are many variations on this. For instance, some times she’s “Mere Lulu,” and sometimes she’s simply “LaBloom.”  Occasionally, she is also “Gleimug Czysvlos,” but I don’t know what  that means. 

Look at how fabulous the black Oxalis U gave me is doing! Next I’ll kick  your African Violet ass! LuLu LaBloom (qui est soulement le jardinière le  plus formidable de le monde!) 

How would you like it if I moved a little closer 2 U?   ulu La BLooM!> 

Punkins, please text me your recipe 4 lime/ginger/honey salad dressing  ASAP. Have a huge freshsalad mix losing freshness vit! Thanx, Lulu la B! 

Kimmy: Be on safe side & empty Fiji water bottle I left on porch—vit  vit—B4 one of kids takes swig! Luv ya. ~ Gleimug Czysvlos 

Hey kids, Thelma & Louise is on right now channel 7. Ta ta, LuLu. 

Hi kabimps! Had GREAT time & hope U R glad I made it. I know  my screwed up hearing/balance is a drag & must thank U 4 rolling w/  it. Mere Gleimug. 


Glossary 

A kind of door—this glossary is, anyway—a door I am in the  midst of constructing, and when I am done with this door, I will shut it, and on the other side of this door, I will leave everything I’ve  written here. Or not. Maybe I’m just talking through my nonexistent hat about a nonexistent door, a door I’d never actually be able  to shut—not all the way—even if this glossary were one. 


Happy 

My mother calls from a payphone to inform me that she’s just  gotten back from a new dentist, and she actually sounds happy about  it. Almost jolly. She says this dentist is young and caring and that  maybe—who knows—maybe she’ll actually be able to help with  her teeth. 

“I’m hopeful.” 

“That’s great. It’s good to have a dentist you like.” 

“I made her cry, though,” she says, and still there’s something  bright in her voice. 

“How?” 

“I don’t know! I just opened my mouth and she started crying.” 


Helpless 

Terror comes in two sizes, I think. There’s the big kind: gas attacks, earthquakes, a stranger with a gun. And the small: personal  and rich with shame. It was the small kind of terror I felt whenever  my mother threatened to “get out the scissors.” Something about  that phrase, about the way she said the word scissors

Tracy and I would beg her not to do it—“No, no! Please. Not  the scissors!” It sounds comical now, but at the time to watch her cut  up one of our father’s business suits was like watching someone kill  a small animal, some helpless thing. Snip, snip. It doesn’t take much  to do a great deal of damage with a sharp pair of scissors, and as the  scraps of charcoal gray, navy blue, or pinstriped black fell to the floor,  a terrible humiliation filled the room. My father’s symbolic castration  was clear enough to us even if we didn’t know that word. Screaming,  spitting, his cheeks bright, almost cherry red, he would pull at his  own face as he stood over her while she kept working the scissors,  cool as an insane cucumber. 

Afterward, the sense of impotence that settled over the house  was horrible. Huge chunks of my childhood passed under the spell  of that emotion. What I remember about it now is looking at things  through it, like a lens that turned everything pointless, even the most  innocuous details: the moist sugary shimmer of my mother’s wax begonias, for example, or the transparent nylon quilting thread of  my flower-print bedspread, or the pale, nearly iridescent part in my sister’s hair, or the ionic blue glow that washed over us in the TV  room as we watched hour after hour of it didn’t matter what, in an  atmosphere sucked dry of all sense, all order. 


Invention 

It’s Christmas Eve, and my mother calls to tell me a story.  Because my father is visiting for the holiday, and because my parents haven’t spoken for over two decades, and because my father is pretty much afraid of my mother, afraid that she will cause him  some sort of career- or relationship-based misfortune (as, in fact,  she has so carefully contrived to do in the past), I step outside, onto our porch, to talk with her, even though it is very cold and I’m not wearing a coat. I do this mostly because I don’t want my mother  to be able to hear, in the background, my father’s voice among  the many voices that fill our apartment tonight, and also because I  don’t want her to feel isolated by the sound of all those voices in  general since she is alone and uninvited and it is Christmas Eve, a holiday she has always loved and looked forward to with the  excitement of a child. 

She prefaces what she is about to tell me by saying I need to listen  very carefully because this story is going prove that I have to believe  her, that I should believe her, and that I will now understand, with the  telling of this story coming up, that she is not paranoid, only unlucky  and observant. I walk to the edge of our porch as I listen, so that I  can look at the strand of Christmas lights David hung up a couple  of weeks ago—large, colorful, old-fashioned bulbs. It’s just one long  strand of lights—green and yellow and blue and red—running along  the edge of our roof, then loosely spiraled through the limbs of a small  fir tree, but somehow it seems all the more magical for the minimal  touch. 

My mother’s story goes like this: she went to Kinko’s a couple of nights ago and stayed for a few hours because she can no longer use the computer in her apartment as her every mouse click is being tracked. So for twenty dollars an hour, she went to Kinko’s and rented time on one of their machines. It was three o’clock in  the morning, she said, when she got there, and the people working  the night shift were being really vicious to her. For example, at one  point, one of the clerks asked her to come over to the counter. 

“Look up,” he said. So my mother (who can be disturbingly compliant) looked up. “Not there,” said the man, “there.” He pointed. 

She tells me that she looked to the spot he’d indicated, and his co-worker, a woman about the same age—mid-twenties—said real sweet only not really, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” Then the  woman behind the counter took a picture of my mother with one of those goose-necked cameras, the kind with a large single eye  attached, via cable, to a computer. 

“Now, Kimberli,” my mother says, “you tell me, why would she  do that? What possible reason?” And for once she is quiet, her voice  pointedly held in check. 

I know what she wants me to say. She wants me to say that,  yes, with the telling of this story, I am now able to see, finally and  with perfect clarity, what she’s been talking about all these years.  Yes, this anecdote about a couple of completely assy dorks at  Kinko’s has finally made it clear that everybody is in on this plan,  this scheme—that those two Kinko’s employees are obviously in  cahoots with DMH, which proves that DMH is in cahoots with  AT&T, and the whole lot of them are in cahoots with her various  doctors, dentists, and shrinks. Yes!—she wants me to say, Yes! I see  it all of a sudden, clear as day! I see that every single one of these people—  from the customer service representatives at AT&T to your shrink of  twenty-two years to the highest-up mucky-mucks at MacLean Hospital  to every one of your last five or six landlords to the entire administration  of your locally owned bank to some mysterious sector of Medicaid—I see  that every single one of these people-slash-entities shares a single agenda,  which is to put you back in the nuthouse. She wants me to say, I get it  now. Finally, really, I get it! And not only that, I understand the necessity  of helping you with this problem, and I will put my own life on hold in  order to see to it that you win these battles because deep down I am your  Sancho Panza, Mom, I am! 

I know that this is what she wants me to say because it is what  she always wants me to say, but I do not say these things. I don’t say  anything for a while because my mother is talking again, repeating  the whole story more or less verbatim, only emphasizing different  elements, probably in the hope of giving me a fuller picture. 

I am feeling many things. Cold, for one, because it is bitter out  here. Three of my fingers have turned white. I can also feel my  heart breaking, jaggedly, as if someone were pulling a serrated knife  through it. And my bones hurt because guilt has always done that,  for some reason—hurt my bones. Yet at the same time I’m getting  really, really impatient. Not surprisingly, impatience wins. I cut her off and say, “Maybe those kids just know that you have problems, you  know, Mom? Maybe they’re a couple of bored, nasty losers working  the graveyard shift at Kinko’s, and they know you have issues, and  maybe they were just trying to get your goat. Just for fun. Maybe  they thought the best way to do that would be to push one of your  buttons, so they scared you, because they’ve figured out you’ve got this thing, this paranoia . . .” 

“Oh, no-ho-ho-ho, Kimmy,” my mother interrupts. “No. No.  No. No! You really don’t get it, do you? One day it’ll be too late, and  then you’ll get it. You are just so stubborn. Why would I make something  like this up? What possible reason do I have for inventing such  a complicated thing?” 

The Kinko’s story goes on for a while after this. Actually, it gets  more complicated because it turns out there was another customer,  someone who made a big stink over my mother’s paperwork, which  he thought was taking up too much room, but she thought he was  just trying to look at her things, so there was a scuffle of sorts, which  prompted the man to make a comment about my mother’s mental  health, and this, to her mind, only proved his complicity. 

When David pokes his head outside to tell me dinner is almost  ready, a wave of laughter spills onto the porch. The warm air from  indoors smells of saffron-laced fish stew and just-baked almond cake.  I tell my mother I have to get off. She says okay, but doesn’t stop  talking, so I tell her I really have to go because dinner is almost ready  and I should help set the table, and she says, okay, okay, but still she  keeps talking. I say I am going to hang up now, and she says okay  again, but doesn’t stop, so I say, “Now is when I’m hanging up.” But  first I say, “Merry Christmas, Mom.” And then I say, “I love you.” And then I hang up.

 

Kim Adrian’s memoir, The 27th Letter of the Alphabet, is forthcoming in fall 2017 from the University of Nebraska Press. She is the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Borrow Readymade Forms, an anthology of hybrid essays also forthcoming from UNP. Her book Sock is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series. She teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University. The above excerpt will appear in the memoir and is used by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. (10/2016)


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